Avon And Somerset Constabulary Becomes First Force To Admit Breaching Protest Rights Under Lockdown Powers
In a legal first the Chief Constable of Avon and Somerset Constabulary has admitted that its officers unlawfully arrested four protestors due to a “misunderstanding of the legal effect” of Coronavirus Regulations.
Taus Larsen, 43, Rowland Dye, 68, Paula Richardson, 61, and Rosalind Martin, 60, were detained by officers outside Bristol Magistrates’ Court on 25 January, 2021. The protestors were wearing masks and arrived separately to show their support for the ‘Colston Four’ defendants charged with criminal damage to the statue of slave trader Edward Colston.
After being spoken to by officers, architect Taus, retired teacher Rowland, gardener Paula, and artist Rosalind, all from Bristol, agreed to leave the scene.
However, moments later they were arrested and taken to Patchway Police Station where they were all held for several hours, at times in close proximity to officers, apart from Paula who was not taken into custody. They were all later issued with fixed penalty notices for allegedly breaching coronavirus regulations.
Lawyers secure damages for Edward Colston court protestors after unlawful arrest
After receiving a letter from the Public Law and Human Rights department at the law firm Irwin Mitchell threatening legal action, the police admitted to unlawfully arresting Taus and Rowland and apologised for contravening their human rights. A similar letter sent by lawyers acting for Paula and Rosalind resulted in the force admitting its officer had treated them unlawfully as well.
The police have agreed to cancel the fixed penalty notices issued to all four protestors and to pay them substantial damages.
The day before the arrests the force issued a public statement claiming that “anyone thinking of attending [the protest]… will be breaking the law” and that “protests are not allowed”. However, force has now admitted this was “not a correct understanding of the effect of the Tier 4 restrictions” and that leaving home to participate in a protest could be lawful. Lawyers for the Chief Constable admitted that if officers had been briefed correctly “then it is unlikely that [any of the four protestors] would have been arrested.”
Bristol protestors wrongly arrested under COVID-19 laws leaving scene
Taus, from St Werburghs, Bristol, arrived outside the court at around 9am on his bicycle. He was approached by a police officer who confirmed he wouldn’t be breaking the law if he cycled past the court whilst playing music.
Shortly afterwards another officer stopped Taus and said he was now required to leave the area. As he attempted to cycle from the scene another group of officers arrested him.
Rowland was arrested whilst walking away from the court carrying a homemade placard highlighting Bristol’s historic role in the slave trade and its current role in the arms trade.
Paula and Rosalind were each arrested after writing non-offensive messages in solidarity with the Colston Four on the pavement in water soluble chalk.
Man wrongly arrested by police at Edward Colston statue court protest 'not posing a risk'
Taus said: “I was in two minds as to whether to attend on that day due to COVID, but I really wanted to show my support for the Colston Four. I decided to go alone, masked and socially distanced, but playing music from my bicycle - this seemed like a sensible compromise.
“The officers who rushed over after I’d already agreed to leave seemed like they'd made their minds up and were intent on taking me away to a cell - which seemed crazy given we were in the middle of a pandemic.
“The whole thing was ridiculous. I wasn’t posing any risk to the public, but the police put me in a position which increased the risk to me and to the officers dealing with me. They could have just warned me and let for me cycle away, or issued me with a fine on the spot, rather than forcing me to spend hours in a cell for no good reason.
“It felt like the officers had been told to arrest some protestors, whether they were posing a health risk or not. I can only assume they were trying to make up for appearing soft on the toppling of the statue. The police’s public statement the day after my arrest was a complete misrepresentation of what actually happened. They made it sound like I was posing a public health risk and had refused to leave.
“The worst thing is how this relates to the proposed Policing Bill - if it had been in force that day then I would have risked being fined £2,500, or even sentenced up to 10 years in prison, for causing 'serious annoyance'. Allowing the police to arrest people they think are causing a 'serious annoyance' in any given circumstance, would be a significant deterrent to peaceful protest and would hugely undermine our human rights of freedom of expression and assembly.”
Rowland said: “Like a lot of Bristolians I think that statue should have come down a long time ago and I wanted the Colston Four to see there were people supporting them when they arrived at court.
“Because I was being so careful about coronavirus it was really alarming to be put in the back of a police van and then in a small holding room with an officer. It felt like a total overreaction, not to mention potentially dangerous, not only to my health but for the officers as well. It just seemed like a total failure of common sense.
“To read the police’s press release the next day that there had been “an unlawful protest” and that protestors had been “detained by officers after refusing to disperse” felt like an added kick in the teeth. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong and here the police were bragging about arresting peaceful protestors. It was shocking.”
'Peaceful protest must never be silenced'
Rosalind said: “In the week that justice has been served for George Floyd, it is vital that the right to peaceful protest in support of the Colston Four has prevailed. It is fundamental to our democracy. The locking up of peaceful protestors should never happen.”
Paula said: “Peaceful protest must never be silenced by the Government or the Police at any time. It is essential part of what it means to be a caring, conscious citizen.”
Expert Opinion“This case is a reminder that the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly can’t be taken away by a minister signing off regulations or a police force issuing unlawful restrictions.
“The police must remember that their role is to facilitate the right to peaceful protest unless it is strictly necessary to do otherwise. Human rights aren’t there just to be respected when it’s convenient but should be at the heart of police decision making regardless of the circumstances. Otherwise officers risk treating the public unlawfully and even risk placing them in danger, as was the case here.
“We believe that this is the first time a police force has admitted to using coronavirus legislation to unlawfully arrest protestors. It is to be hoped that police forces across the country will take notice of this case, and will reflect carefully on whether they have misused coronavirus powers to unlawfully restrict the right to protest. We must be wary of trading away our hard won liberties, even in challenging times.” Gus Silverman - Associate Solicitor
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